Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they have recognised and supported the role and contribution of faith communities in Britain and the Commonwealth during Her Majesty the Queen’s reign.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to have the opportunity to initiate this debate. Before I begin, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, on his debate last week, which also focused on the contribution of ethnic and religious communities in Britain. I know that many noble Lords here also participated in that debate and I am grateful for their presence in the Chamber today. Sometimes debates are like buses: you wait for ever for a debate on the contribution of faith communities to Britain and then two come along at once. However, given that this weekend we will celebrate Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee, I hope that your Lordships will allow me to focus mainly on the second portion of today’s Question—on the relationship between faith communities and the Queen—and to draw attention to the gracious way in which she has guided and sustained this nation through one of its most challenging transitions into a multiethnic, multicultural and multifaith society.
Many tributes have been and will be rightly paid to Her Majesty for her six decades of sustained and dedicated service to the nation, but one aspect of it in particular should not be forgotten. It is not easy for any society to undergo change, least of all when that change touches on such fundamental markers of identity as religion, ethnicity and culture. It is even harder in a nation where there is an established church to make other faiths feel welcomed, valued and at home, but that is precisely what Her Majesty has done. I believe I speak for us all if I say that we are lifted, blessed and enlarged by the generosity of spirit in which she has done so.
Many noble Lords will wish to add their perspectives, and we will hear today from Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Zoroastrian and other Jewish Members of this House, as well as being honoured by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, together with his predecessors, has done so much personally to contribute to our national ecology of tolerance and mutual respect.
Let me simply say on behalf of the Jewish communities of Britain and the Commonwealth how much we have appreciated Her Majesty’s kindness to us and to others. This is something of a miracle in itself since Jews hardly ever agree on anything, but on this we are united. It is astonishing how far this spreads. For the past year, wherever I have travelled to Jewish communities throughout the world, one of the first questions I have been asked is, “How was the royal wedding?”. In the United States, in several synagogues that I visited in February, to my astonishment they sang “God Save the Queen”. It may have been the first time since 1776 that they have done so. Each week in all our synagogues, we say a prayer for the Queen and the Royal Family, and this week we will say a special prayer of thanksgiving to mark her Diamond Jubilee and the great gift of her leadership and service.
There are rare individuals whose greatness speaks across all ethnic and religious divides. Her Majesty is such an individual and we are truly blessed by her. She has spoken often of her personal faith and of the Church of England, of which she is the head. However, she has spoken equally of the contribution that all other faith communities have made to the life of the nation. At Lambeth Palace in February, in one of the first official engagements of the jubilee year, she reminded us of how faith itself—not just Christian faith—recalls us to the responsibilities that we have beyond ourselves, and of how, together with the Church of England, other faith communities were increasingly active in helping the sick, the elderly, the lonely and the disadvantaged.
In 1952, the first year of her reign, Her Majesty became the patron of the Council of Christians and Jews, the organisation founded 10 years earlier, in the Holocaust years, by Archbishop William Temple and Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz. It was one of the first great interfaith organisations in Britain. Today there are hundreds of such groups, creating friendships across the boundaries between faiths where otherwise there might have been suspicion and fear. One of the greatest of them, the Interfaith Network, is this year celebrating its silver jubilee; and as we speak, another new initiative, Interfaith Explorers, is being launched at the Regent’s Park mosque in the presence of His Royal Highness the Duke of York. That, too, is a reminder of how much other members of the Royal family, such as His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and others, have done in their own right to make all nine of the major faith communities in Britain feel recognised and respected.
We are enriched by our religious diversity. Each faith is a candle; none is diminished by the light of others; and together they help banish some of the darkness in the human heart. I know of few places in the world where friendship across faiths is more vigorously pursued than in Britain. For the way in which she has led and encouraged this great opening of hearts and minds to one another, as for so much else, Her Majesty has lifted our spirits and earned our thanks.
Might I therefore humbly ask Her Majesty's Government two simple questions? First, how have they recognised the role and contribution of faith communities, as Her Majesty has done over her 60-year reign, and how will they continue to do so in the future? Secondly, could they find a way to convey to Her Majesty the thanks of all Britain’s faith communities for all she has given us and all she has inspired us to give to others?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, on his contribution. I also congratulate him on securing this sell-out debate, the way in which he introduced it and the leadership which he gives within this House and in wider society on the importance of faith as a force for good. I associate myself absolutely with his generous remarks about Her Majesty the Queen and her example through faith.
At its best, religion is the wellspring from which societies are refreshed and our attitudes and institutions are irrigated. At its best, religion builds bridges of understanding; at its worst, it builds walls of prejudice. At its best, it is the measure by which we seek to live our own lives; at its worst, it is the stick we use to judge others whose lives and choices we disapprove of. At its best, religion is a light in dark times which guides us and gives us hope that tomorrow can be better than today, but only if we are prepared to devote ourselves sacrificially to making it so. At its best, religion inspires us to rise above the narrow confines of our own experience to reach out and serve the needs of others. I believe that over the past 60 years we can take pleasure from the fact that we have seen far more of the best of religion in this nation. I hope that over the next 60 years we will see and be more of the same.
My Lords, I too thank the Chief Rabbi, the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, for his inspiring words. I agree with them absolutely. My one-minute message is this: God helps who help themselves. Perhaps that is a little audacious in a debate with such religious luminaries, but the point I want to make is that nowadays faith communities that function well as faith communities function well in society as a whole. For this, we need social capital.
In the Jewish community we have an organisation called Jewish Policy Research; I declare an interest, as the honorary president. This organisation works for all strands of the community, from secular Jews to the ultra-orthodox. It provides information about deprivation, the elderly, child poverty, education in Jewish schools and patterns of charitable giving. It takes a snapshot from the national census. These trends and information enable the community to create social capital; this is essential if the community is to contribute to the inclusive society that we all seek. We cannot have an inclusive society if the faith communities themselves are not inclusive.
My Lords, I thank the Chief Rabbi, the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, for this important debate. The Commonwealth represents many faiths; as head of the Commonwealth, Her Majesty the Queen has united many nations towards a community of communities built on justice, peace and democracy. History will record Britain’s transition from a colonial empire to a society based on equality and diversity as a major contribution made by Her Majesty the Queen. In her reign, we have enjoyed the longest period of stability in the United Kingdom. Equality and diversity are at the core of everything we do; despite this, we worry about our national identity. As Amartya Sen said:
“Identities are robustly plural; the importance of one need not obliterate the importance of others”.
We celebrate the rights and responsibilities that come with British citizenship—the rights of all people to live in peace, to get an education and to get a job and raise a family. We now need to move towards a common citizenship. The aim must be social inclusion, tolerance, equality and a diverse society where human rights flourish. What we can all do is strengthen our resolve to be loyal to the Queen and the country.
My Lords, Her Majesty’s 60-year reign has encompassed six Roman pontiffs and six Archbishops of Westminster. Her Catholic subjects have increased from 4.4 million to 6.6 million people and, in the Commonwealth, from 25 million to 140 million people. More than 800,000 children are now educated in 2,278 Catholic schools in this country, and 1,000 independent Catholic charities helped at least 800,000 people last year. That snapshot of flourishing faith-based activity indicates why Her Majesty’s Catholic subjects have good reason to celebrate in a spirit of true ecumenism the Diamond Jubilee of a Queen whose life embodies religious tolerance and the principle of duty and whose own faith has been such an inspiration, as the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, reminded us so eloquently today, throughout her wonderful 60 years.
My Lords, like all of us, I am much indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, for initiating this important discussion and doing so in this particularly auspicious year. It is a pleasure to pay tribute to someone who has done so much to maintain a credible and challenging presence for religious perspectives in the public sphere.
When people speak as though religion were automatically a problem in our public life, nationally and internationally, this often reflects a plain lack of historical and cultural awareness. Usually through no fault of their own, a generation of administrators and local officials has grown up with little or no sense of how our political and legal history in this country has become what it is as a direct result of a long conversation with the Jewish and Christian intellectual world, with the ethics and theology of human responsibility characteristic of that world. A failure to acknowledge this leads to the dangerous assumption that our political and legal settlement needs no argument in its defence because it is obvious to all right-thinking people. But if we are to sustain our legacy of dignity before the law, participative government and hospitality towards minorities, we had better be aware of just how and why our ancestors developed such a political ethic and what depth of thought and imagination is needed to keep it alive. That failure of understanding is, of course, one of the things that lies behind the reluctance in recent years to develop effective partnership between statutory bodies and faith groups in the work of social regeneration. But at present the auguries are good, for a change, in that respect.
I want to allude very briefly to the importance of this in the international as well as the national context and take this opportunity to welcome the work being done by the Department for International Development on protocols for partnership with faith organisations in the field of aid and development. The potential here is enormous, and I encourage the Government to do all that they can to work with the grain of this increasing sharing of our vision for international justice and well-being.
My Lords, not everything in the garden is rosy. I must say that there are a few thorns among the roses. We really need to be more aware of what is happening to many of the women in the faith communities in this country. Noble Lords would expect me to speak about this subject. There are forced marriages and honour killings, and there is the rise of Sharia family law, which discriminates against women. Every child over seven automatically goes to the father; women cannot obtain Sharia divorces and, if they do not get Sharia divorces, the man can claim the children and the wife at any time, anywhere. So we have to look at the negatives as well.
I admire the Queen more than anybody else. I live in Maidenhead and have been mayor of Windsor and Maidenhead. She is a wonderful person; I wonder whether she knows what is happening to women. I would say to all people here from faith communities that they should remember that none of the faiths has ever supported women.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, for bringing this topic before the House.
I pay tribute to the faith leaders, groups and communities who have welcomed strangers with open arms in their hour of need and who have helped to make Britain and the Commonwealth a home to those strangers. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the expulsion of tens of thousands of Asians from Uganda, many of whom arrived here penniless and were entirely reliant on the generosity and kindness of the British Government and our faith communities. Faith communities of all religions and denominations, particularly a large number of Christian organisations and the Board of Deputies of British Jews have helped Ugandan Asians in Britain, from the handing out of overcoats at the airport to the support we have had in developing and integrating our community. We have been blessed to receive such support. In the year in which we celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, I wish to say one simple thing to all those communities who, through compassion and love, have helped my fellow Ugandans to find a home: thank you.
My Lords, 60 seconds, lots to say: faith a wonderful thing; people of faith an army of active and willing participants in the good society; millions of tasks done with compassion, many repetitive, routine, humble; neighbourly deeds performed with love to anyone in need, whether or not they have faith; the struggle for justice; fighting racism, fascism, poverty; seeking to establish millennium development goals; something to believe in; lots of fun; and a vision to live and die for. I am proud to be a person of faith. And all this in just a minute without repetition, deviation or—I nearly said “repetition” twice, which would be repetition.
My Lords, we have heard moving contributions from those speaking about all kinds of faith communities. Jews have found a safe haven in this country and the Commonwealth for many years under British sovereigns. Her Majesty and her father have continued the tradition of welcoming the contributions of the Jewish community to the life and richness of Britain through some of our trying times. She has more than followed in the steps of Queen Victoria, when Sir Moses Montefiore showed how one can be a passionate Jew and a passionate Englishman.
In the new Elizabethan age over the past 60 years, the world has changed at a frantic pace. However, faith has been a bedrock of stability in often difficult times. This country is all the better for its diversity, and that diversity is experienced nowhere more than in the variety of faith groups that now exist in this country. May Her Majesty’s reign go from strength to strength, that we may move forward towards the vision of Isaiah, where,
“nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, for this debate. In many instances where there has been conflict the root of the problem can be religion intertwined with politics. This was true of Northern Ireland, where I lived through the Troubles and saw at first hand how this can and does affect the lives of people caught up in the divide. However, I have also seen changes and how people from different faiths are now recognising the need for dialogue, peace and harmony. The Good Friday agreement and the St Andrews agreement have achieved understanding and peace. The power-sharing arrangement is a good model of people coming together and working for peace. Northern Ireland has been transformed as a place to live and to practise faith with tolerance and in harmony.
Her Majesty’s royal visit to Dublin last year was a pivotal moment, bringing a message of good will for all communities working as one. It brought people together and went a long way to healing age-old differences. During her Majesty’s reign she has reinforced the message of peace, harmony and hope to communities across the world.
My Lords, I would also like to show my appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, not only for initiating this debate but for the leadership that he has shown in my community, the Jewish community. I also appreciate being able to participate in the debate with the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and to reflect for a moment that those two figures have combined an absolute commitment to tradition with citizenship and modernity. That can be done only through tradition, and it is only in our country, with a monarchy that has reference to tradition, that we can have this sort of participation in the public sphere. More than anything, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, for allowing me to pay tribute to Her Majesty and the graciousness with which she has fulfilled her duty. It is also hugely important that we did not have a revolution like the French Revolution and we allowed a means by which people of faith can participate and speak in a public role.
I pay tribute to the Muslim community in east London, with whom I have worked, and to the East London Mosque for its work on the living wage with the Catholic Church, the nonconformist churches and the Church of England. The tradition of a person is not just as a commodity or unit of administration but is a genuinely moral conception. It is the great paradox of our time that it is only with faith that we can fulfil the dream of citizenship.
My Lords, like so many other speakers, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Sacks. Next year, he is due to retire from his position as Chief Rabbi, and it is perhaps appropriate that there should be an occasion in this House to acknowledge his remarkable contribution that has enabled the changes that have taken place generally within the community to proceed so well. It is, indeed, a marvellous thing to be a Member of a House of Parliament such as this where so many faiths are represented and so many can contribute.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, for initiating this debate and for his personal contributions to faith communities across Britain. It was Kipling who wrote:
“If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With 60 seconds’ worth of distance run”.
Here is my effort. I can think of no better words than those in the prayer of my own Muslim community to Her Majesty, which is:
“In the name of God, the gracious, the merciful: O Powerful and Noble God. Through your Grace and Blessings keep our honoured Queen forever happy in the same way that we are living happily under her benevolence and kindness; and be kind and loving towards her in the same way that we are living in peace and prosperity under her generous and righteous rule”.
Adorned on many a London bus is a message not just of a Muslim community to the Queen but a message of all communities to the Queen: “Congratulations Your Majesty!” and thank you.
My Lords, I am delighted to speak today and to congratulate my dear friend, the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, on this remarkable debate. I am proud to be president of the Commonwealth Jewish Council, an organisation that is celebrating its 30th anniversary of working and supporting truly unique and diverse Jewish communities throughout the Commonwealth. Each community brings its own values to enrich its country—whether it is a large community such as that in South Africa, which fought against Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment and apartheid, or the small thriving Jewish community of only 10 families in New Delhi, who I visited recently and whose ancient heritage is respected and intertwined with other faiths in India—a country built upon many different cultural and historical traditions. Looking back over the past 60 years, we must all recognise and celebrate the contribution of faith communities who brought their individuality to our country and to the Commonwealth.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, for introducing this important debate. I have been a minister in the United Reformed Church for nearly 30 years, serving in some of Britain’s poorest communities. One thing that I have noticed over the years is that the state tends to be utilitarian, narrow and sectional in its approach, as heard on the BBC “Today” programme in a report about how hospitals are discharging people literally on to the streets. This approach, as well as being uncaring and limited, is also bad from a business perspective because these people will simply end up back in casualty.
In contrast, faith organisations in general have a broader view of care for the whole person. They have a wider concern for those they help rather than a narrow, sectional interest, and this is why they should be involved in the delivery of public services. I hope that policymakers within government will take this point into account as we move forward with the restructuring of the National Health Service and are all encouraged to embrace a localism agenda.
Does the Minister agree that the biggest change in the past six decades has been the transformation of the global community, including the Commonwealth, from a world full of glass ceilings and barriers to a world where there is increasingly opportunity for all, regardless of race, religion or background, and where the glass ceiling has been well and truly shattered? Do the Government agree that, although discrimination unfortunately still lingers and we have a lot more work to do, overall the picture has changed dramatically for the better since Her Majesty was crowned 60 years ago, to one where faith communities have opened people’s eyes, where tolerance has progressed to a celebration of the enormous success of minority faith communities in countries such as Britain, where even tiny communities such as mine, the Zoroastrian Parsees, have achieved so much against all odds, and where the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, and his community are an exemplar? Today, thanks to the achievement of these individuals reaching the very top, the minority faith communities have been an inspiration to the wider communities and countries into which they have integrated.
Do the Government also agree that enormous credit for this transformation is, as the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, said, due for the way in which Her Majesty has fostered an environment of secularism, multiculturalism, pluralism and meritocracy, creating opportunity for all, and that this is truly the crowning jewel of the Diamond Jubilee of her 60 years on the throne?
My Lords, perhaps the major contribution needed from our faith communities today is job creation. Alas, I do not mean increased church attendance necessitating more vicars but the new social enterprise, the Cathedral Innovation Centre, being launched this very week by the Dean of Portsmouth Cathedral, the very reverend David Brindley.
The cathedral had redundant good-quality office space, which it agreed to make available for 14 job-creation, start-up businesses at a peppercorn rent. This represents an in-kind contribution of over £50,000 across three years. The centre will offer highly experienced business mentors who are volunteers from Hampshire’s congregations, and a micro loan fund from Parity Trust to back the ventures, as well as using the Chancellor’s Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme so that taxpayers who back a firm get 50% tax relief. Both Portsmouth Business School at the University of Portsmouth and the Royal Society of Arts have, unsurprisingly, already become partners. If 61 cathedrals in England joined them, the Cathedral Innovation Centre would become a movement, which in the 61st year of the Queen’s reign could see more than 600 new businesses created. What a wonderful Jubilee legacy that would be.
In thanking the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, for initiating this debate, I remind him that the second bus is less crowded, has more seating and is a much more pleasant experience. For my community—the Jewish community—Her Majesty’s reign has been a golden era. There are fewer than 300,000 Jews in the UK but we are prominent in many aspects of our national life, from the professions to the arts, science, academia, business, philanthropy and, yes, even politics. In this House alone, 10% of the Members are of the Jewish faith. Indeed, the leader of my own political party has a Jewish background and—who knows?—in the next few years we could have our first Jewish Prime Minister since Disraeli. All this has happened because this country is so tolerant and welcoming and so encouraging of its minority faiths to succeed.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Sacks for initiating this debate. Interfaith relations have come a long way in the 60 years of Her Majesty’s reign with her blessing and that of members of her family. The CCJ was in place 10 years earlier but these 60 years have seen a burgeoning of interfaith understanding with the World Council of Religions for Peace, the Abraham Fund, the International CCJ, the Joseph Interfaith Foundation, the Inter Faith Network, the Three Faiths Forum, the Coexistence Trust and the Woolf Institute. I could go on and on but we have only a minute.
We now need to move beyond interfaith dialogue to interfaith action. It is my dream, alongside that of many others, that before this Jubilee year is out, firm plans will be in place to establish a multifaith school, something that some of us, including my noble friend who is in his place today, have been planning since the Golden Jubilee and for which we need the Government’s help. We have managed a multifaith hospice and now we must learn to educate our children together in all faiths, following the wonderful example of the integrated schools in Northern Ireland and the Hand in Hand schools in Israel. For me, that would be the culmination of the faiths’ contribution in this Diamond Jubilee year and in its spirit.
My Lords, the Human Rights Act has played a major role in securing, on a statutory basis, the freedom of religious belief. However, the protection of the freedom to manifest belief has become much more controversial. The courts have got into the position of having to determine whether a particular practice is intrinsic to a religion or not. The different findings by the courts on this issue have some potential for creating tension and even resentment between different religions. We would be much better off if we abandoned this attempt by the courts to sit as some kind of theological tribunal to determine whether this, that or the other practice is intrinsic to a religion, and tolerated, as far as we can, all manifestations of religious belief so long as they do not cause harm to other people.
We can share a concept of harm—it is a broadly based citizenship approach—whereas a court trying to determine what is intrinsic to a religion is a very hermetic thing that will be a source of increasing resentment as time goes on. We ought to abandon that kind of approach altogether.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend and colleague Lord Sacks for his moving and inspiring words. I have mild criticism for my noble friend Lady Flather for saying that no religion has ever done anything for women.
I begin by applauding the work of Her Majesty and the royal family and their kindness in welcoming different faith communities. Readings from other faiths were a central part of the Queen's Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey even before the founding of the Inter Faith Network 25 years ago. As part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations, Her Majesty visited places of worship of other faiths, including a gurdwara in Leicester, and the Prince of Wales and other royals have joined us in our different celebrations.
The Government too have been welcoming, after some initial wariness of what one official described as “all that bowing and chanting”. In the 1980s, the importance of faith communities was recognised with the formation of the Inner Cities Religious Council, which later became the Faith Communities Consultative Council. My suggestion, through the Inter Faith Network, that we start the new millennium with an all-faiths service of reflection and reconciliation was enthusiastically taken up with a service in the Royal Gallery of this House. Our different faiths have responded well by contributing to the economic and social life of this country, but we have much more to do. We still seem to see our different religions as mutually exclusive, while in reality we share common values that are centred on responsible living. The challenge for us in this Jubilee year is to work with others in secular society to bring these values to the fore, and to change an obsession with the culture of “me and mine” to one of greater responsibility and active concern for others.
My Lords, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, I welcome the many contributions, including that of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury—and we hope not for the last time—from the Bishops’ Benches. I shall not repeat what has been said but I note that religious practice correlates with higher levels of volunteering and participation in civic society. I most appreciate that voluntary work in the field of alcohol misuse. The Salvation Army is there day after day, night after night, throughout the year.
Today’s debate is about government support for the role of faith communities. My question was foreshadowed in the debate last week. The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, responded but is not in her place today. Why have the Government disbanded, without consultation, the Faith Communities Consultative Council, and what do they propose to put in its place? As perhaps the only noble Lord here who has no faith, as an outsider I pay homage to the work of the faith communities, and even more to that of the interfaith communities. We need you and we hope that your work will continue.
My Lords, if every debate in the House of Lords were conducted with one-minute speeches, we would achieve an enormous amount. This has been a most gracious debate. At the beginning the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, asked if there was any way in which the debate could be conveyed to Her Majesty. The Palace has already been alerted to it and we will see that a report goes back through the proper channels.
I am very honoured to reply on behalf of the Government. Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, not only for initiating the debate but for being a distinguished scholar and spiritual leader, and a globally respected ambassador for the Jewish community. He has done as much as anyone alive to focus our attention on the challenges of community in the global environment and to introduce us as a nation to the principles of respectful co-existence. For that we honour him.
I will first echo his remarks about the Queen’s role in welcoming minority faith communities to our country. Her Majesty was the first monarch to enter a British mosque, Hindu temple and Sikh gurdwara. The reception for representatives of nine different faiths held for her Golden Jubilee 10 years ago demonstrated their affection for her. Comments today from noble Lords confirmed it. The affection is clearly shared across the Commonwealth by people of all faiths who have seen at first hand Her Majesty’s genuine respect for and interest in their religions, while recognising that of course she is not only the head of state but head of the established church.
In 1952 when the Queen ascended the throne, Christianity in Britain was not only the predominant but in many areas the only visible religion. It underpinned the standards and morals of society. Since then we have received into our midst practising Muslims from the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, Pentecostal Christians from Africa and the Caribbean, Hindus and Sikhs from India and east Africa, Catholic and Orthodox Christians from eastern Europe and many more from many other places—some coming here for asylum, others joining family and friends. All of them brought their traditional cultures and religious mores. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, secured an excellent debate last week and I agreed with the points that he made about the connection with those faiths.
We have not attempted to regulate this religious diversity. Elizabeth I said:
“I would not open windows into men’s souls”.
I am proud of the fact that in Britain we have no official register of religions. One does not have to apply for permission from the police or the town hall to follow one’s faith. Everyone here may worship as they wish within the law, and the determination of all of us is to ensure that there is absolutely no change to that position.
Recent Governments responded positively to religious diversity in several ways. Processes have been put in place to ensure that faith groups are properly consulted on the development and implementation of policies that affect them. They in turn are encouraged to make the elements of their faith known to the wider community, and to share their cultures. Over time I have had the opportunity and great honour of visiting a number of faiths, including last week a gurdwara in Birmingham, and have been very proud to do so.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, asked why we had discontinued the Faith Communities Consultative Council. We do not believe that a standing advisory council with regular meetings is the most effective or fairest way of consulting faith groups.
We retain contact with all former member bodies of the council and others, but we believe in conducting consultations with the most qualified individuals from the right organisations at the right time. There is no intention to break off any of the discourse or consultation that takes place with them; just to conduct it on a different basis.
As well as providing spiritual succour to their followers, religions inspire great numbers of people to offer service to their own communities and more widely. A number of contributions made that clear today. Tens of thousands of faith-based charities and community groups work tirelessly either in international development such as Islamic Relief or Christian Aid, or in providing homeless shelters, support for young mothers or care for the elderly in their local neighbourhoods. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury raised the question of this international co-operation. All departments are seeking to improve the way that they work with faith communities, but I will convey his helpful remarks to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development.
Care of the elderly in local neighbourhoods is part of the support given by faith groups, and annual projects such as the Hindu-led Sewa Day and the Jewish-led Mitzvah Day motivate thousands to perform acts of selfless service. Sikh gurdwaras not only provide free food to all, but run community centres such as the Nishkam Centre in Birmingham, which I visited. Black-majority churches offer free health advice and counselling as well as religious support. I was interested to hear of the cathedral initiative of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge. We hope that that will be successful.
This jubilee year, the Government are facilitating a programme—a year of service—to celebrate and link-up social action, and I am grateful to noble Lords for mentioning that. Every month, each of nine faith communities in turn is hosting a day of volunteering around the country and inviting people of other faiths and beliefs to join in. Each day of service is linked to either a religious festival or an existing volunteering day and each has a theme, such as visiting the elderly, feeding the hungry or planting trees. In addition to that, we might also say that they are sharing their faith with others and making connections between one faith and another. For example, this March, the Zoroastrian community marked the Iranian new year by bringing music and laughter to old people’s homes and hospices in different parts of London. We should urge all faith communities to take advantage of the opportunities offered by a year of service.
Many local councils work well with churches and other faith groups, by commissioning services from them, for example. I hope that more of that will come in the future as a result of the Localism Act. However, the present Government have recognised that faith groups can encounter barriers to their social outreach, such as excessive bureaucracy and difficulty with obtaining planning consent. We are ensuring that regulation is proportionate through the changes that we are making to various regulations to try to remove those barriers to work.
I should make specific mention of the Church of England, not only because the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury is here with us. The church’s impressive infrastructure and its duty of care to all who live in its parishes, regardless of belief, have persuaded us to make an investment of £5 million over three years in the Church Urban Fund’s Near Neighbours programme. This is providing grants of up to £5,000 to help local people of different faiths to get to know each other and to improve their neighbourhoods together. More than 200 projects have already been supported.
It is clear from what has been said today and from what we all know that it has never been more important to build bridges between our different faith communities. As many noble Lords said, faith can be a force that brings people together rather than dividing them. It also provides support, comfort and strength to many of us, whatever faith we belong to. If we are to realise that promise, it can only be through hard work, discussions and joint working to improve our country and our neighbourhoods. Each faith can contribute its own wisdom, abilities and assets for the good of the whole.
Many contributions have been made today and carried out within the time, and I will not breach that. I wholeheartedly endorse the admiration of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, for Her Majesty’s inspiration and example. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken so movingly, but especially to the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, who had the grace to raise the debate.